Showing respect - the entire road
It was customary for the family of the dead person to close
their venetian blinds. Close neighbours normally did the same,
and on the day of the funeral the whole road would close them. So the road
looked very sombre.
There was no traffic noise to speak of so the sombreness was added to by
the tolling of the bell in the local church where the funeral was to take
The funeral procession
The hearse was a horse-drawn carriage with glass sides which showed the
coffin through. It was always black and elegantly and tastefully decorated.
Victorian or Edwardian hearse, photographed at Milton Keynes Museum.,
Understandably the hearse is behind railings to protect it, but these
make the details more difficult to see, especially as the unrelated
sign also obscures.
When the hearse left the house, the undertaker and his men carried their
top hats and walked behind the carriages at a dignified pace to the end of
the road. Then they would take their seats and the horses would be
allowed to break into a trot.
The coffin being loaded onto the hearse - although the bearers should
not have been wearing their hats! Screen-shot from an old film.
The other horse-drawn carriages followed behind the hearse, with the
closest family heading them. The carriages held four to six people.
There was quite a bit of pomp with some funerals. The horses would have
black velvet covers on their backs, similar to those worn by racehorses.
Then over their ears they had black plumes about 6 inches long [about 150
mm] which bobbed up and down as they trotted along.
For some time I was puzzled at my mother's description of the postilian, as all photos of Victorian and Edwardian funeral processions show drivers wearing top hats.
However she was correct, as according to the The Free online Dictionary:
A postilion is someone who rides the near horse of a pair in order to guide the horses pulling a carriage (especially a carriage without a coachman).
An old book confirms that postilions were in funeral processions:
The coffin, half hidden among flowers, was in a hearse drawn by six black horses richly caparisoned* in purple and gold. One of the front horses rode a postilion
wearing a tight fitting black tunic and purple knee-breeches and a black
* caparisoned refers to a horse without a rider.
Pat Cryer, webmaster,
and daughter of the author
I recall seeing one funeral when I was
a child and going home and telling my parents that they had a jockey riding
with them. I was corrected and told it was a postilion. He was certainly dressed
like a jockey with a close fitting outfit and a jockey like cap with lots of
braid on his jacket.
The empty coffin leaving the cemetery. Screen-shot from an old film.
The funeral service
The funeral service itself was a depressing affair. You may think that they are today,
but with the introduction of cremation, a lot of the sting has been taken away.
With the old-style funerals, after a short service, everyone walked to the grave,
where the grave diggers would be waiting to lower the coffin into the grave
on long braids. Then the minister would conduct another short service. When
he came to the part about "From dust to dust - from ashes to ashes", he would
take a handful of earth and sprinkle it on the coffin. Whatever the weather,
men were expected to stand bareheaded throughout, and they often caught cold
as so many deaths were in the depths of winter. So you may imagine how depressing
it was with everybody in black with their black border handkerchiefs. So, with
respect, people of my generation say thank you for cremation, although we did
hear some gruesome tales when cremation first started to become fashionable
- such as that when the coffin slid through the curtains and you saw the flames
leap up. I suppose such exaggerated talk always comes with anything new.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.